Cup Title Chase Tightens

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Two consecutive weeks of bad finishes for points leader Sterling Marlin, and all of a sudden the Winston Cup Series championship chase becomes a crapshoot.

Instead of four probable title contenders, now there’s as many as eight drivers who have a legitimate shot at wearing the big crown by season’s end, and it’s due in no small part to Marlin’s 27th-place finish at Indianapolis and his 30th-place performance at Watkins Glen.

In fact, Marlin’s summer really hasn’t been much to talk about. Outside of a third-place run at Daytona and a third-place finish at Pocono three weeks ago, the driver of the No. 40 Coors Light Dodge has been in a slump for the last eight weeks.

Overall, Marlin lost 40 points off his lead in the standings after Sunday’s road course event, but he lost 56 points to Mark Martin, who now sits in second place.

“I wasn’t sure how it would shake out at the end, but it could have been worse,” Marlin said of his finish at Watkins Glen on Sunday. “We were hoping to come out (of Watkins Glen) with a Top 10, but it didn’t’ work out that way.”

Despite Marlin’s problems the past few weeks, no one has been able to knock him from the top spot in the standings. Marlin, who has not won a race since Darlington in March, has led the points chase since the second week of the season, at Rockingham.

Inconsistency has plagued the other drivers, such as Martin, who finished 10th Sunday at Watkins Glen and recorded his first Top 10 in nearly a month. Martin now sits in second place in the standings, 53 points behind Marlin.

“We’ve done a great job of hanging in there, especially (Sunday at Waktins Glen),” Martin said. “We didn’t have the best car, but we kept fighting and we got the Top 10 and a chance to move up in the points. I’m proud of the effort and now we’ll move on to Michigan.”

Since winning at Lowe’s Motor Speedway in late May, Martin has but two other top-five finishes – second at Pocono in June and fifth at Daytona in July. As is Marlin, Martin is gunning for his first Winston Cup Series championship, and this might be as good a year as any for him.

Rookie Jimmie Johnson hasn’t had a great run in a few weeks himself, but he continues to hang around. He’s in third place in the standings, just 56 points behind Marlin.

The reason for Johnson’s staying power is that his results haven’t been all that bad, even when he’s had mediocre races. He has three top-10 finishes in his last eight races, but has finished worse than 16th just once during that time.

“It’s frustrating, but you win as a team and you lose as a team,” the driver of the No. 48 Lowe’s Chevy said. “We’ve had a five-or-six-race stretch here where we’ve been able to be in the Top 10 or Top 15, but we haven’t been able to get back in the Top 5.

“We’re gaining ground in the points race, but with lesser performances than where we need to be. That’s allowing guys from fifth on back to close that gap on us. We had a nice margin there for a while. As much as we’re focusing on where the 40 car (Marlin) is, those guys behind us are closing at a rate of speed. We’ve been coming from provisional land and back, way back in the pack, up to contend for Top 10s each week. I’d just love to start up front and finish up front.”

Tony Stewart’s story over the past few weeks has been a most intriguing one. Stewart has four top-10 finishes in the last seven weeks, but had two finishes of 39th (at Daytona and New Hampshire) to boot.

Stewart’s off-track problems at Indianapolis, in which he shoved a photographer, have been well chronicled, but he was smooth as silk on Sunday in winning the Sirius Satellite Radio at the Glen at Watkins Glen International.

Stewart is now well within striking distance of the championship lead, in fourth place, 104 points behind Marlin.

“If we are fourth, I’m extremely happy just from the standpoint that every time we’ve gotten to fifth this year, something would happen the next week and we’d go back to seventh,” Stewart said. “I was like, ‘Either get us to sixth or get us to fourth.’ I don’t want to be seventh anymore. I don’t want to be fifth anymore, so if we’re in fourth, I’m tickled to death.

“Anything is possible. You look at the bad luck we’ve had this year and you look at the things that have happened to us and you look at where we’re at, it’s pretty good. If anybody can rebound from all of this stuff that’s happened, it’s this team. If anything, it should put some fear in these other teams in that they’ve got to stay on their game. Last week and everything we’ve done this week has given this team more focus than we’ve ever had before.”

And then there’s Jeff Gordon. He hasn’t won a race since Kansas Speedway in September last year, but there he sits, in fifth place in the standings, just 106 points behind Marlin.

“That’s (the championship chase) the least of my worries right now,” said Gordon, who finished 22nd Sunday. “I want to win races and I want to go to places that I know we can win races and perform to where we’re capable of. Last week at Indy we had one of the best efforts we had all year long. We had a great effort this weekend; it just didn’t work for us.”

Veterans Rusty Wallace, Ricky Rudd and Bill Elliott all remain solid contenders. Wallace is sixth in the standings, 132 points behind. Rudd, who has faced the distraction of trying to nail down where he’ll be next season over the past couple of months, is 150 points back and Elliott is eighth in the standings, 188 points behind Marlin.

Elliott has had a bout with inconsistency as well. He did win two straight races, at Pocono and Indianapolis, but that was sandwiched in between a 34th-place finish at New Hampshire and a 21st-place run at Watkins Glen.

Marlin hopes for a huge turnaround this weekend at Michigan International Speedway. Last August at Michigan, he broke a long winless streak and gave Dodge its first victory in its return to the Winston Cup Series.

“We’ll get ‘em this week at Michigan,” Marlin said. “I won the second race there last year, and it was the first for Dodge, so that’s a special race for me. We need to win another one and start making these points go the other way.”

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